Hunting Steelhead in Low and Clear Water by Roger Hinchcliff

Hunting Steelhead in Low and Clear Water by Roger Hinchcliff

Here in the Great Lakes Region we have a lot of anglers who fish for Steelhead and with that comes a lot of fishing pressure. Not to mention the unpredictable weather patterns from our Great Lakes. When you have no rain in the forecast for long periods and with the added fishing pressure that can mean a tough day on the river. 

steelhead roger hinchcliff

With that being said, these conditions present challenges for the everyday Steelhead angler and when faced with low, clear conditions we must make things happen to maximize our time on the water.  Whether you believe in climate change or subscribe to it as being just a warming trend in our weather patterns, it just seems like a common occurrence every season anymore. But in 2015 it was the warmest year on record around the world in 136 years.

In this article we will discuss actual rigging techniques for low and clear water. Some of these tips can be vital to your success when the conditions get tough.

low clear water hen steelhead

Smaller is better

If you remember one thing, everything needs to be smaller. Forget standard sizes on everything, the smaller the stream the smaller and stealthier you need to be.

Delivering your smaller offerings from a distance is critical to getting bit. If the fish know you're there or they can see you coming forget it, GAME OVER! Now let’s talk gear and stealth rigging.


Many fall or Winter Steelhead anglers can be seen on the river wearing their Hunter Safety Orange jackets because they are warm. But bright clothing is not a good idea; you need to blend in with your surroundings. Try wearing your actual hunting camo or something dark brown and olive drab. These are better choices to conceal your movements.

Remember when the water is low and clear these fish are very spooky, ready to disappear at the slightest thing out of place. The fish actually feel uncomfortable and vulnerable to predators. Hence why they try to seek out broken, faster water or log jams for security.

Instead of fumbling your way down the river through the holes, you must be a predator and become a fish hunter. Stalk the runs and holes that you suspect fish are holding in, be diligent in your searching, slow but methodical, but do this from afar.

Longer drifts should be the norm.


When it comes to rods for this type of fishing I would have to say at a minimum a medium action 10 foot spinning rod will get the job done. However I prefer even longer rods from 11-13 feet. And I use these longer rods to deliver those longer drifts with my center pin reel, one of my favorite ways to catch Steelhead.

I can deliver a drag free drift and bait with this technique from 80 yards away. How’s that for stealth? Another important fact is a longer rod is able to pick that extra line up off the water very quickly for hook sets and mending. Longer drifts are essential in delivering the baits from a distance remember were in stealth mode. In addition these rods help protect those lighter tippets, thus helping you land more fish on lighter lines. As you can see a longer rod has many benefits.

stealthy fishing great lakes snow


The float you use is important as well. I prefer to use a Drennan Loafer Floats. In sizes No. 3, 4 and 5 these will hold anywhere between 4.4 to 8 grams of shot. For those "low and clear" days out on the stream, using these Floats will give you an edge to be successful. They are made of clear plastic with its shape allowing a clean strike with very minimal disturbance at the surface of the water, when shotted properly.

Another float option is Raven floats they have many sizes and designs for slow, med and fast water conditions. My favorite sizes are anything from a 2.8 thru 8 grams. By running this style of fixed floats a bobber can be changed very easily to match the current run conditions. The faster and longer your rig is in the water the better chance of catching a fish.

Split Shot

You need the weight to balance the float and to get your offering down to the fish. Put larger split shot closer to the float and smaller shots closer to the micro swivel that’s attached to your leader. I personally believe the larger shots can spook fish in ultra-clear Low water situations. By placing larger shots up top on the shot line and putting smaller ones as you go down creating that tapered shot pattern this will allow the bait or offering to swing out as far away from the float as you can. Sometimes I will use all smaller shots rather than using any larger ones, because I feel the smaller shot does not spook fish as much. I will use a lot of 3/0 or smaller.

Even the plop of the rig after it hits the water in these conditions is important. Cast further upstream than you normally would and hold on to your spool and allow the rig to straighten and swing way out ahead of the float before you let it ride the seam. This tip alone puts more fish to hand if guys would just learn this. What’s happening is the bait is being presented to the fish naturally way ahead of the rest of the rig before they have a chance to see it. Imagine your fishing rig going horizontally rather than vertical. Anything out of the ordinary drifting above a steelhead can cause them to spook or be alarmed.

"This tip alone puts more fish to hand if guys would just learn this."

I’m such a fanatic I even dye my split shots black with liquid plumber overnight. The next day you will have dark shot instead of shiny shot. Make sure to rinse shot very good and let dry before storing. I even run fluorocarbon leader for my shot line. At the end of that are my Micro swivels. There are some very small sizes that work great for this type of presentation. My favorite is the 4X small it’s so small but yet so strong.

steelhead clear water great lakesLeaders

This is one thing to pay attention to as well because now we're getting closer to your offering or the business end. In low-clear water especially pressured fish can become line shy. Hence why the new fluorocarbon lines have helped Steelhead Anglers catch more fish than ever before. But line diameter is something I pay attention to, along with leader length.

My favorite line to use for this presentation is Segar Grand Max. You can get very strong line in some crazy small diameters. For example I can get 12.5 pound test in a .009 diameter that’s like 6 lb. test. The Grand Max is more expensive than others but some days you must go that extra mile to get bit in my opinion. Average leader length for me is at least 3 feet and as long as 9 foot in ultra-low clear water. Do not add any weight to your leader this will allow bait to drift freely and more naturally through the current as it goes through the run.

steelhead roger great lakes


I run hook sizes from size 8-16. I choose light wire hooks for better penetration. The lighter wire hook and sharpness is what’s needed to stick that fish and get good penetration. Remember when using lighter lines and longer finesse rods and a heavy wire hook is going to be harder to penetrate the hard boney mouth of a steelhead. It just does not work very well when running light gear and finesse presentations. Lighter is better all the way around.


I love using spawn sacks for steelhead; smaller bags are the key. I like to tie dime size bags in natural colors like white and peach on bright sunny days. For overcast days or in low light periods I will use the brighter mesh. Colors like pink or chartreuse. When leaves are in the water then I use a lot of Blue and Purple Bags.

Each spawn bag should have just a few eggs in them, smaller dime bags is what you’re looking for. Also pick your favorite scent and add a few drops to your sack before your drift. The scent attracts fish and can help mask your human scent. Fish can smell in parts per billion. I feel this is one area most anglers ignore the scent factor or their sense of smell. But that’s another article in itself.

I also love to fish single eggs on a single small light wire hook or tipped with a just wax worm or wiggler. Find yourself some micro beads in size 4 or 5 mm in natural colors can also be deadly.

Spring and Fall seasons are a great time to have bead imitations that mimic salmon or brown trout eggs. And as the months go on try jumping on the dead egg bite. Fish washed out egg colors and patterns. Many bead companies like Great Lakes Steelhead Company offer pale colors, white and even brown beads. This technique can be dirty good!

A small pink worm cut down to 2-1/2 inches can also be dynamite on Steelhead. For whatever reason most fishermen in the Great Lakes Region don’t employ this technique. The action of the tail on those worms drives Steelies absolutely nuts some days. The ones that have discovered how good rubber worms can be don’t talk about it much.

A small salad shrimp or even a small shrimp bag tied can be deadly on fresh fish in the fall. Try a night crawler sometime it will out fish many baits somedays in clear water especially on summer Skamania’s.

steelhead chrome great lakes


After the winters of 2013 and 14 the words Global warming is a tough sell but the new politically correct term is climate change. The current numbers say globally 2015 was the warmest year we have had in 136 years.

So if you believe its climate change or just a warming period. There is no question low and clear water conditions do exist and have been more prevalent the past few years. Question is will it be more of the norm in the future? My advice is to learn and experiment with some of the listed techniques and I promise they will help you land more fish.

- Written by Roger Hinchcliff

Author, Rod Designer and Fishing Tackle Representative


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So im from Vancouver Washington i believe you can catch low clear water steelhead early in the morning anywhere in the river but when the sun comes out most are caught in fast ripples rather then deep pools the go there to hunckerdown i belive the steelhead are skamaina steelhead stock from the washugal river now here we have a weal small steelhead from seattle

Jon Linker

Good article and great tips!


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